Three queer women, one Honda SUV and perhaps the longest bar crawl ever.
“For a while, it was a little bit of a pipe dream,” co-creator Rachel Karp, a New York producer and director, tells GO. “Once we were all fully vaccinated, we started thinking about traveling again…and making the podcast.”
The “trip” Karp speaks of was an intense undertaking. Beginning in late summer 2021, Karp, along with journalist Sarah Gabrielli and line producer Jen McGinity, traveled cross-country to answer these questions: why are there so few lesbian bars left? What, if anything, is taking their place? And what defines a lesbian bar?
“Cruising” launched October 24 with two episodes featuring New York bars Henrietta Hudson and Cubbyhole, respectively, with a third episode covering Washington D.C.’s A League of Her Own. Forthcoming episodes go everywhere from Chicago’s newly-opened Nobody’s Darling to the Boycott Bar in Phoenix, Arizona, to the Lipstick Lounge in Nashville, Tennessee.
The Brooklyn-based trio had been looking to collaborate on a project for some time (Gabrielli and Karp went to high school together and have been friends since age 15, while Karp and McGinity are dating). On New Year’s Eve, 2020, they began talking more seriously about the project. “There was a little bit of buzz about how there are so few lesbian bars left,” Karp says. “And I thought, what if we went to them all and interviewed folks and heard people’s stories about these spaces?” Because the three are queer women, they considered their personal history with lesbian bars and contemplated what these spaces mean to the rest of America.
“Going into this, I felt that lesbian bars were safety and comfort and acceptance…in a way that you don’t experience in any other form of bar or nightlife,” Gabrielli says. “What I’ve found throughout our road trip is that’s not specific to my experience or the New York bars I’ve been to. So many times we heard people say, ‘This is not a bar, this is a family, this is a home, this is a community.’ They’re homes for people that might not be able to find that elsewhere.”
“Before I permanently moved to NYC… for the first time being not [one of the ] only lesbians at the bar, [I was] surrounded by tons of people that felt the same as me and [were] experiencing that community for the first time,” Karp adds.
McGinity’s lesbian bar experience is both similar and different. “I’m older than [Sarah and Rachel], and my formative years in college took place when the lesbian bar scene was super lit and mostly women,” she reflects. “There were five or six or seven bars we could choose from, [and] it confidently set me off into my New York City gay world. It was a safe and exciting place to go.
“I’m not frequenting them as much as I used to,” McGinity adds. “And something I learned on the road is that in other parts of the country, folks still go to these places. I don’t think you age out of them in New York, but you kind of forget about them.”
While lesbian bars have provided a safe space for many, the “Cruising” team is also aware of their sometimes-exclusionary past. The podcast website contains their collective belief that “‘lesbian’ bars should be safe spaces for queer folks of all historically and presently marginalized genders [and] for BIPOC individuals.” The creators take this seriously.
“Historically, a lot of lesbian spaces have had kind of a racist history,” Karp tells GO. “It felt important to vocalize that just because we’re invested in going to these spaces today and preserving their history, we feel these spaces should be for everyone, of all races, moving forward.”
The podcast also discusses the evolving definition of the term “lesbian.” Karp says, “We’ve talked a lot about…what the term ‘lesbian’ even means in this contemporary world, when we’ve kind of moved past the gender binary or at least would like to.” The conclusion? “One of the criteria for a modern-day lesbian bar in our eyes [is] a safe space for all marginalized genders, so folks that are not cis men.”
For Gabrielli, Karp and McGinity, making “Cruising” has been full of surprises, beginning with the podcast’s pre-travel, research stage. “There are…more lesbian bars and queer spaces in more conservative states, which we weren’t expecting,” Karp says. “Los Angeles has no lesbian bars, and Oklahoma has three!”
McGinity and Gabrielli experienced other revelations in the Southern states. “People would say, ‘You’re the nicest New Yorkers we’ve ever met!’” McGinity recalls. “I thought [that stereotype] had been washed away but in some places it’s still very present.”
Gabrielli adds, “All three of us had no idea that in some places like in Oklahoma, you’re still allowed to smoke inside. We literally thought that was a federal law, but there are a handful of bars in the South [and] that’s just what they did. We started calling so we could prepare for it.”
“One less shower!” McGinity jokes.
The team also made new friends of the non-human variety. “Being on the road was the hardest thing for me in particular…[I was] missing my cat, who I have an unreasonable attachment to,” Gabrielli recalls. However, because the trio often stayed within walking distance of the bars, McGinity says, “[we were] able to meet some cute and friendly stray cats. All the better for Sarah to get her fix in!”
So why are there so few lesbian bars left? And what is replacing these unique spaces? Without spoiling the entire podcast, the “Cruising” team shared some insight they gained along the way.
“One of the things we touch upon is that a few decades ago, when there were 200-plus lesbian bars, there was nowhere else to go and be your gay, lesbian self and feel safe,” Gabrielli says. “Now we are very lucky: in most places, you can go and feel safe pretty much anywhere. And if you’re a lesbian and you want to go out, you don’t have to go to a lesbian bar.”
“We’ve also noticed that…a lot of historically lesbian spaces have really moved toward inclusivity and are rebranding as queer spaces, which we think is absolutely a good thing,” Karp adds. “We’ve [seen] a bit of a difference in terms of lesbian bars making that move, where not as many historically or currently gay male bars are making those same decisions about rebranding and inclusivity.”
Karp has also noticed a variety in options of queer spaces, that don’t necessarily involve drinking. “Especially in more progressive cities like New York and Chicago, there are so many other spaces for queer women to be themselves,” she says. “Sports teams, book clubs and other non-bar spaces serve that purpose as well.”
Most significantly, “Cruising” has helped reignite its creators’ appreciation for communal lesbian spaces and the individuals within them. “As soon as I met one of the people we were there to interview, I would start to see the story of the bar unfolding,” Gabrielli says. “We had this amazing opportunity to not only travel to these places, but get to know people. We had to get their life stories wherever we went, which was just incredible.”
“In New York, I feel like we take these special and magical gay places for granted,” McGinity says. “It was so cool to see the dedication and love from, literally, a 21-year-old at a bar and a 65- or 72-year-old and all of that in the middle. It was inspiring to me. My flame for going to my safe gay places was reignited.”
“Cruising” is now available to stream on all podcast platforms, with new content every week. For more about the podcast and its creators, visit cruisingpod.com.